The Perfect Amount of Stress
“Performance is like a guitar. If the strings are too loose the music is flat. If they’re too tight, they could snap. Just as the instrument’s strings need to be at the right tension, an athlete must have their body tuned for the right performance.”
Gary Mack- Author of “Mind Gym”
One of the most useful psychological concepts for performance comes from Yerkes-Dodson Law, depicted below. The law suggests that there is a relationship between performance and the amount of physical and mental stress/arousal we are under. When our level of stress is too high or too low, our performance suffers. When we have the right amount of stress, our attention, energy, and performance is optimal. The quote above from Gary Mack highlights this relationship perfectly. This concept is so simple and logical; yet it usually comes as a new insight or new area of exploration when I work with individuals and teams.
Too High or Too Low?
Most athletes can relate to being over-stressed come game day or race day. Perhaps the pressure of the event or the feeling of needing to contribute at a high level causes our levels of physical, emotional, and mental arousal to peak. Our brain, in its effort to keep us “safe”, unleashes a stress response to warn us to the possibility of danger: either physical, emotional (feeling disappointed, etc...), or social (letting the team down, etc...).
For some, it may look like a racing heart, sweat, a pit in our stomach, tight muscles, or fast breathing. Some people notice more of what the mind is doing: racing, negative, distracted, or frozen. Either way, it's unpleasant and impacts our performance. We see the game as a threat rather than an opportunity. When this happens we look to stay safe, avoid risks, overthink, act frantically.
I’ve talked with several athletes though that find themselves on the opposite end of the stress curve. Usually, in their attempts to manage their stress, they come into a game not stressed enough. They are too non-chalant, distracted, or too relaxed making them slow, heavy, in their heads, and unmotivated.
I recently met with a Division 1 soccer player who had a lot of trouble finding the right amount of stress. He noticed that the pressure to perform and do well left him doubting his abilities. He was going into games overly stressed and played frantically. On his own, he decided to take long showers right before warmups to relax and get his mind off the game. The only trouble was that he was coming out under-aroused. He then was fatigued, not intense enough, and didn’t have the energy to withstand a 90 minute game. His attempt to relax was spot on but his management of it left him unprepared.
Knowing Your Sweet Spot
Depending on a variety of characteristics such as personality, sport, length of play, etc… each athlete needs to find their own sweet spot for their optimal level of stress. Simple awareness of where their stress level is at before a game or race, and then a reflection after of how they performed would be a good start. Pre-performance routines are critical to understand what works and what does not.
Increasing Levels of Stress
There are many ways you can increase your level of stress for a performance so if you have something that works for you, by all means, do it! But here are some suggestions of the top things athletes do to increase their arousal before a big game or race:
- Rapid breathing exercises
- Energized action
- Energizing thoughts- affirmations, positive talk
- Motivational audios
- Highlight videos
Decreasing Levels of Stress
Again, there are many ways someone could reduce stress before a big game or race but here are some popular choices.
- Slower music or music from your childhood
- Slow Rhythmic breathing
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Controlling Self-talk (creating perspective, gratitude, acceptance)
- Socially connect with a teammate or parent
As always, thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed.
Let me know if you have any questions!
Powell Cucchiella, LMHC